AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
TAORMINA AND VENICE –1984
THE TWO FOR ONE
by Harlan Kennedy
Italian film festivals are one of the age's great gifts to mankind, welding the inspirational energy of the Italian Renaissance to the plug-in modernism of 20th-century technology. Festivals that attempt to join good movies to a spectacular setting are ten a penny – who needs more of them? In Italian fests the setting gets fused with the film program. It's a union you find nowhere else. The different parts get sticky in the sun and you can't separate them; the place and the pictures snarl up together in an amazing knot.
In Taormina, nature gets in on the act of movie symbolism. Semiologists have been yakking on for years about the "suture" in cinema – that wound-like hole, the movie screen, through which we spy another reality. Taormina gives us Nature's own greatest suture, the magnificent volcanic Mount Etna. Its crater bubbles away on the Sicilian skyline like a red-hot bowl of tomato soup. Menacingly it eyes the 20,000 spectators seated for the evening screenings in Taormina's giant Greco-Roman amphitheater.
Like any volcano, the festival had periods of dormancy in this, its fifteenth year. You'd sit through days in which nothing happened beyond a comatose Hungarian allegory, a prostrate Finnish adaptation of Crime and Punishment, and a Russian snorer about Our Brave Boys at the Front. Then suddenly flames leap up, lava hits you in the eye, and you get a film like Tony Gatliff's Les Princes (The Princes). This French debut movie wowed everyone and won the top prize of the Golden Cyclops (more ripe symbolism – the monocular Cyclops sporting two-dimensional vision just like us filmgoers).
Les Princes is a film for gypsies, about gypsies, by a gypsy. It's an amazing thunderclap of comedy and melodrama. Pursued by a tracking, darting, zipping-around-the-place camera, its hawk-faced Saturnine hero stomps along life's roads, towing his little daughter and led by his palm-reading 80-year-old mom who checks her Tarot cards for directions as she trudges along on a mysterious quest.
The fun lies in Gatliff's relish of a world in which nomadic penury leads to a life-style of lawless surrealism: the kitten Mom keeps in the fridge, the umbrella she uses to hook a tableful of couscous, the window of a momentarily deserted dining room, the Poe-like madman who, his love's labors lost, keeps crying "Ma-de-leine!" in a midnight waste ground. The movie moves along like the clappers; it is at once operatic, delightful, and thunderously dramatic. And it isn't until the last scene that you realize that Gatliff has, quite casually, pulled you back in time to the continuous dawn of Romany and into the slipstream of the gypsy quest.
The crowd roared its approval in the amphitheater. And so they did at peak moments during the Hollywood movies unveiled in Taormina's non-competitive "Second American Film Week": including Beat Street, Splash, Romancing the Stone, et al. This event, born last year, is an ace slot in the European festival program that U.S. distributors should be falling over themselves to fill. Where else will you find an audience of 20,000 entertainment-hungry fans ready to deafen an entire Italian town with their approval? Guglielmo Biraghi, the courteous and admirable fest director, is laying on the event again next year. Sunset Boulevard, please note.
Elsewhere in Taormina, the festival never rests from the task of slotting this new-fangled business of filmgoing into a timeless mythic matrix. There is, for instance, the Sisyphus Event each evening; a bus-load of journalists is transported from seaside hotels to hilltop Taormina to see the films. These unfold alternately in the amphitheater, crowded with the ghosts of Sophocles and Euripides, or in the Cinema Olimpia, which has a slide-open roof (another suture) through which, if you're bored with the movie, you can watch the shadow-play of Sicilian families and their cats in the lighted third-floor windows abutting the cinema. Farther off still, you can hear the wheezy screech of an old troubadour tenor entertaining the cafe crowds in the Corso Umberto. His high C's, the most frightening thing since chalk first scraped a blackboard, pierce even the noisiest of soundtracks.
Life doesn't imitate art in Taormina – it comes straight in and joins it. In no other film festival are you so consistently invited to compare and entertain both life and art simultaneously. Which you prefer at any given moment is wholly up to you. In the words of a friend of mine (a semiologist), "Suture self."
Leaving Taormina's dark blue Mediterranean sea, our tour next stops at an Adriatic town made memorable by Titian, Turner, and Katharine Hepburn.
In Venice this year, the spirit of the festival was even more vexing a question than in Taormina. Those puzzled as to why the hell there were so few American films in Venice (only one U.S. pic in competition, and that by a Russian director, Andrei Konchalovsky's Maria's Lovers) had to be content with fest chief Gian Luigi Rondi's explanation that of the 30 or 40 films he saw, none was in harmony with the spirit of the festival. Apart from Maria's Lovers, only Streets of Fire and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom snuck into the main Venice program, both shown non-competitively.
What is this "spirit," apparently so vigorously anti-American, that Rondi is talking about? Some thought that séances should be held to try and find out. Others thought the "spirit" might be, in some way, related to the famous headless corpse that is supposed to walk the corridors of the Hotel Hungaria, which stands on the Lido's main drag and resembles a Castle Dracula that accepts all major credit cards.
Of course the Venice fest does have a spirit, just like Taormina. And at its best it's one of Quatrocento joy in the new and varied, time-warped forward into the Novecento. It's certainly nothing to do with the nationalistic putsch Rondi tried to stage this year, cramming the event with Italian movies (six in the competition and dozens more outside), being stingy with other countries (except France) and trying to turn the Mostra del Cinema from the international film fair it's been at its best into a corner shop for home-grown product.
Of the Italian films, only Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Kaos (Chaos) had the true crystal ping of a masterpiece. Wherever you tap this five-sided movie, containing four Pirandello stories and an epilogue, it rings as beautifully as a cut-glass goblet and is as prismatically colored. Each of the Sicilian-set tales – a mother who hates her son; a werewolf husband; the breaking of a giant olive oil jar; a band of peasants defying feudal law to stake out their own burial ground – show fractured love or compassion under pressure and the way people set about mending the cracks and stresses. Like Padre Padrone, it paints primal emotions in a furiously beautiful landscape: the parched golden fields, the pinnacle-nesting towns. Like The Night of the Shooting Stars, its camera eye sweeps across vast groups of humans picking out the special faces, feelings, and stories.
The rest of Italy's vast fleet of films variously foundered, struggled, or took on water. Only Pupi Avati's Noi Tre (We Three) of the non-Taviani pics had pith and pleasure. Behold the last youthful summer of WA. Mozart (Christopher Davidson) on the estate of Count Pallavicemi before he takes the music exam which will propel him out of childhood and into the grim lap of genius confirmed. Avati deals out scenes with the enraptured carelessness of a conjuror spraying cards at you.
Which is just about Otar Ioseliani's technique in Les Favoris de la Lune (Moon Madness). This free-floating Russian-Georgian director, now working in France, clearly subscribes to a new "Otar Theory": that a director should not be seen to have any shaping control whatever over the autonomous fittings and dashings of his characters. Here we have stolen paintings, crooks, molls, Arab terrorists, priceless Sèvres china, white horses, good meals, sex, and violence – all the things we get enough of at home but still want more of. Ioseliani creates a fast, skewy, fractured storyline whose guessing-game nonsequiturs are just the kind the filmgoer is happy to take up. How to throw away conventional narrative without becoming really trying.
This was the common theme of most of the French films at Venice. Five of them in competition, the four others coming from the famous French Rs: Resnais, Rivette, Rohmer, and Rouch. Rondi, another R, obviously thought that France as well as Italy belonged to the "spirit" of Venice this year – though I would like a complete list, please, of all the American films that he saw and thought worse than Jean Rouch's Dionysus. This is not only the death of narrative, it's the death of the audience. As Bacchic euphoria erupts across France, spread by the teachings of American Sorbonne student "Hugh Gray" (Jean Monod), parks and forests and car factories echo to the sound of bands and Bacchanals. It's like watching Hair reinterpreted by Marguerite Duras.
Alain Resnais' L'Amour à mort (Love to the Death) is a meditation on love and death that glooms passionately for 90 minutes across a wide screen. Sabine Azéma, Pierre Arditi, Fanny Ardant, and André Dussolier play philosophic badminton with the Great Shuttlecock Question, "Can love survive the grave – and should it?" It's Azéma's lover, M. Arditi, who cops it; but only after an earlier "death" from which he has, Lazarus-like, returned. Ardant and Dussolier rally round as two Protestant ministers, married to each other, who are big on questions about the next life.
Jean Gruault penned the script (he wrote Resnais' last two films and Truffaut's own love-after-death pic, The Green Room, and Resnais keeps punctuating the elliptic tale with shots of a blue screen flurried across by snowflake-like spermatozoa under a microscope. The film, Lazarus-like itself, keeps being reborn from these little deaths. And Resnais, time-obsessed as ever, somehow makes all this outré eschatology fire cannon-like straight from the heart.
Candidacy for this year's Mangy Lion prize was alarmingly oversubscribed in Venice. The festival scratched itself silly as it was attacked by such unpleasant livestock as Carlos Saura's Los Zancos (The Stilt Players), in which old widower Fernando Fernan Gomes falls turgidly in love with young stilt-troupe actress Laura Del Sol; Erden Kiral's Der Spiegel (The Mirror), a Turkish-set tale of love, murder and remorse which moves at the pace of a wounded turtle; and Marco Ferreri's overearnestly kinky Il Futuro E Donna (The Future Is Woman), in which a pregnant (actually big-with-child during filming) Ornella Muti spikes herself on an eternal triangle with suicidal Niels Arestrup and Hanna Schygulla, who wears slit vamp dresses and hair swept up à la Bride of Frankenstein. What a setup! A girl might as well spend her tender, prenatal months with the Addams family.
The other major madness of this year's Venice fest was its baptism of a new series of "Notes by the Directors": Xeroxed one-page manifestoes in which the filmmaker is obliged to lay his soul on the line in not more than 200-odd words. Best screed was Gavino Ledda's for Ybris, an allegorical Italian film no one I knew managed to sit through. Ledda stretches 200 words to about 1,000 and sprinkles such pearls as, "Ybris is more than a tetragon, is more than polyhedric in its polyphonic conception and in its telluric structure.... Leonardo sings the song of the wolf: HOhhaHHHaaaahhh!!! HohhhaAAhHahhaaa!!!!!"
Another gripe. The nightly public showings in the open air arena are now banned to journalists. Thus there is none of the former joyous interbreeding of the "professional" response with the untrammeled cheering and yahooing of the public. Some of my happiest evenings in past years have been spent in the Venice Arena, seeing good films loudly lionized and bad films loudly put to the sword. Trust the people, Mr. Festival Director; then you'll be able to trust the journalists.
The following things, however, were good about Venice in 1984: the video section, raising pop videos and their ilk to proper importance in the scheme of things audiovisual; the lavish Luis Buñuel retrospective; and, from what I hear, the screening of Edgar Reitz's 15 hour 40 minute folk history of Germany from 1919 to 1982, Heimat (Homeland). Alas, I was kept away, until too late in the proceedings to pick up the threads, by accreditation problems. (Final gripe.) Heimat has been bought by the BBC and is in the process of being subtitled in English. The London Film Festival hopes to screen it, and Ken Wlaschin has secured it for FILMEX 85. I'm looking forward to seeing it. And so, Venezia 1984 e morto. Evviva Venezia 1985. I have reserved my hotel room, and Don Luigi has promised my gondola will be waiting.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE DECEMBER 1984 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.